Saturday, 8 November 2008

The Great Unrest 1910-11. Part 5: Hull

Hull, on the North-East coast of England with docks that could be accessed at any tide, was the third largest port in Britain. Much of its trade was with Northern Europe, but had it increasing links with the rest of Europe and South America. However, the focus on trade with the ice-bound ports of the Baltic Sea made much work in the city seasonal. The local North-Eastern Railway Company had already recognized the trade union, however, this was not to prevent the city suffering unrest through the summer of 1911. Between them the North Eastern and the Hull and Barnsley railway companies owned the extensive docks. Most of the work in the city was related to the docks or industries processing imports, directly or indirectly for the merchant shipping trade.

Housing was cramped and over-crowded. Public health in Hull was poorer and infant mortality higher than the national averages. Despite the city’s deprivation unrest had been uncommon until a series of strikes from the spring of 1911. Even in July when strikes had broken out among dockers on the south coast and at neighbouring Goole local dock trade union leaders were reluctant to call a strike, but on June 20 yielded to rank-and-file pressure. As was becoming common once the dockers struck other unions followed in sympathy. When Askwith, who was well known in Hull because of his work dealing with fishermen’s strikes there, arrived, local carters and railway men had also come out. Unlike the dockers though, these other workers did not have clear demands, thus making settlement of the dispute that much harder. Despite brokering a deal among the different sides of the dispute this was rejected by a crowd of 15,000 many of whom were women, that rioted in opposition to the settlement.[2]

The Home Office maintained that the Hull local authorities were responsible for dealing with unrest, but by the last week in June, this was proving to be beyond their capabilities. The Mayor of Hull, J.S. Taylor, faced pressure from ship owners wanting their perishable cargoes unloaded. They went over his head, straight to the Home Office. Meanwhile the Norwegian vice-consul and the Russian consul were also bringing pressure over ships that could not be unloaded owing to the dispute.

Taylor faced the problem that even if they could be unloaded strikes in other trades prevented goods being taken from the docks. Food supplies in the town were beginning to run short and prices were rising. Given the international pressure which was soon exerted on the Foreign Office too, the government had to intervene. Despite thousands of rioters in the streets and with the town paralysed through strikes, procedure was adhered to. The chief constable of Hull applied to Leeds for twelve mounted police, to triple his mounted force. On the evening of June 29, it was clear that strikers were resentful of Askwith’s deal. Rumours that blackleg workers would start unloading a ship sparked a riot by about 2,000 strikers. Offices belonging to shipping companies, and depots belonging to the British Free Labour Federation were wrecked and many shops were looted. Seventeen people were hospitalised but there were no arrests. Police repeatedly baton charged the crowds which finally brought to an end eight hours of rioting. The mayor requested Metropolitan police. Five hundred were in Hull by the following morning. [4]

Combined with police from other constabularies the number imported into Hull soon reached a total of thirteen hundred. The insignia showing they were not Hull police was removed, but they were far better received than they were to be in towns like Cardiff and Liverpool. Askwith gave a gloomy report on the situation. He saw the mayor as ‘stupid and wobbling’ and feared that if an acceptable deal could not be found the town might ‘see such a revolution as it has nerve done before. The Chief Constable remained wary and following procedure contacted the Northern Command of the Army at York. This was forwarded to Macready for assessments. Two squadrons of cavalry, up to 400 soldiers, were held on standby in York, only ninety minutes by train from Hull.[5] However, these were not needed and on July 4 most strikers accepted the original settlement rejected the previous week and returned to work. The Metropolitans left immediately though other imported police stayed on until June 17. Like other leading northern towns, Hull received troops, two battalions of infantry, in August 1911 to deal with the rail strike. Drawing on the experience of June and July a cruiser H.M.S. ‘Attentive’ sailed to Hull to guard the dock gates from interference. It stayed until August 24.[6]

It was estimated that £300,000 worth of cargo [equivalent to £16.5 million today] had been delayed, some of which had naturally rotted beyond use. Churchill praised the mayor’s action in requesting help, but the council was shocked at the bill for the Metropolitans. After four days Hull had had to foot their normal pay as well as the special duty money. The ordinary pay per day for a police constable was 8s 5d and the special pay 12s [total per day is equivalent to £60 now]; police inspectors received twice as much. There had already been problems with local authorities in Glamorgan not paying for police sent to the area the previous November. Hull’s position attracted similar attention. It could be argued that such large bills for importing police encouraged other mayors to call for troops, who were funded by central government, rather than police on the first occasion. [7]

[1] Keith Brooker, The Hull Strikes of 1911, (Beverley, Yorkshire, 1979), pp. 1, 4, 6, 9.
[2] Brooker, p. 10; Lord George Askwith, Industrial Problems and Disputes, (London, 1920), pp. 148-150.
[3] National Archives [henceforward NA], HO 45/10649/210615, sub-file 5, Under Secretary of State, Home Office [Sir Edward Troup] to Mayor of Hull, undated [28 June 1911?]; sub-file 10, General Shipowners’ Society to Home Secretary, 29 June 1911; sub-file 4, Under Secretary of State, Home Office to Mayor Hull, undated [27 June 1911?]; sub-file 24, J.S. Taylor to Under Secretary of State, Home Office, 1 July 1 1911.
[4] NA, HO 45/10648/210615 sub-file 13, Russian Embassy to Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs [in French; diplomatic correspondence at this time was often carried out in French and as a result it is often difficult to find English language versions of treaties that the UK signed], 30 June 1911, sub-file 5, Letter to Mr. Blackwell, 28 June 1911, sub-file 9, Mayor of Hull to Home Secretary, 29 June 1911; Brooker pp. 20, 22.
[5] NA, HO 45/210615, sub-file 19, S.W.H. to Home Secretary, June 30, 1911; sub-file 12, Memorandum [handwritten], I.R.W., June 30, 1911; sub-file 26a, G.R. Askwith to President of the Board of Trade, 2 July 1912 [sic, should be 1911].
[6] Brooker pp. 21-22; NA, HO 45/10655/212470, sub-file 158, ‘Hull, 19 August 1911; Home Secretary to Mayor of Hull, undated [19 August 1911]; Admiralty to Home Office, 19 August, 1911; NA HO 45/10656, Sir Edward Troup to Secretary, Admiralty, 24 August 1911.
[7] NA, HO 45/10648/210615 sub-file 21, Letter to Mayor of Hull, undated [July 1911]; Mayor of Hull to Under Secretary of State, Home Office, July 1, 1911; sub-file 14, Home Secretary to Mayor of Hull, 30 June , 1911; Parliamentary Debates. Commons. 5th Series, 1911, vol. XXXVII, June 19 - July 7, 3 July 1911, cols. 791-2.

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